Alternate Futures of Wonder

On Songs in the Key of Life, “Saturn” comes in with epic sounding synth sounds over piano chords meant to emulate the strains of royal horns, or perhaps God’s heavenly band blowing their brass. I can imagine that it may sound tinny or cheesy to 21st century ears, but there is something about the smallness of the sound juxtaposed with what it is trying to convey that works for me still, as if the hope in the song is beyond the confines of Earth – and rightly so, because here Stevie is so thirsting for a better, more just, world that he imagines his people coming not from somewhere else on this planet, but from Saturn where things make more sense through compassion and wonder. The longing in this song hits me every time from the very first line, “Packing my bags / going away / to a place where the air is clean / on Saturn.” The song, however, is as much an accusation as it is a vision of hope, because there is a “you” addressed in its verses that can be interpreted broadly as those in power on Earth, though honestly I tend to think of the “you” as white people and people of color being the people from Saturn – like hey, maybe things are set up the way they are because we are from another planet after all. But, really it could be any dominate cultural power that twists “common sense” into something violent and hateful and jingoistic.

We have come here many times before
To find your strategy to peace is war
Killing helpless men, women and children
That don’t even know what they are dying for
We can’t trust you when you take a stand
With a gun and Bible in your hand,
With a cold expression on your face
Saying give us what we want or we’ll destroy

But the chorus is a shout out to the vision of Saturn’s wonder, “Going back to Saturn where the rings all glow / Rainbow moonbeams and orange snow / On Saturn / People live to be two hundred and five / Going back to Saturn where the people smile / Don’t need cars cause we’ve learn to fly / On Saturn / Just to live to us is our natural high.” Stevie’s lyrics are not his strength necessarily, it is the power of his voice, the emotion, the earnestness of soul that elevates his work.

The video of the live version reinforces all these feelings. Stevie’s piano is painted with silhouette of Africa, and he sits in a boat. The song’s lyrics are translated into Spanish subtitles, broadcasting a message of transnational community.

I love this song. Like a great deal of science fiction it presents an alternate future by imagining an alternate past – a different source of origin that allows for a different destiny, and thus for a different understanding of the present moment.

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